In this post, lower down, we’re gonna build a Mason bee house.

Pollinating flowers is a serious job. In fact, in places where pollinators have been killed off by environmental toxins, people are employed to do it. (This makes me nervous because that means a government might sees it as an advantage to take a service nature does for free and turn it into something people have to be paid to do.)

For this reason, the third week of June every year we have Pollinator Week. Its aim is promote and support pollinator abundance and diversity, in the interest of serving them better than we have (see environmental toxin above, but also, habitat loss!) – because Lord knows they serve us!

The Pollinator Partnership (the creator of this event) has tons of information about pollinators and what we can do to be as hospitable to them as possible. And it’s not just about bees: “Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.” Even rats have demonstrated a role in pollination.

Never mind an existential necessity for us humans; that’s a lot of economic value.

What can we balcony or yard-owners and gardeners do to help bees and other insect pollinators? Things being as they are now, even if the spring proceeds as expected (not too cool and damp, not too warm and dry), and the blooms have been on time, if there are fewer flowers to choose from, pollinators won’t be seen around all that much.

So get planting! Plant a garden, even a balcony garden, of plants that flower in succession throughout the season. Include native plants amongst your more showy flowers! It takes a matter of years (don’t let this dissuade you, it’s rather an encouragement) to get the successive blooming underway, but it’s so satisfying when you do. By mid-summer, my anise hyssop is blooming, and between that and the Joe-Pye weed and asclepia, the butterflies are well fed until mid-September.

You can also provide a shallow water source such as a dish filled with sand and pebbles and water. This lets them mud-puddle:

butterflies, Eastern swallowtails
Nature herself also motivated this post: On a recent trip to the Adirondacks, I found a bunch of Eastern Swallowtail butterflies mud-puddling on the beach.

While I was watching these Eastern Swallowtails (27 of them!) mud-puddle at the beach, I saw a Red Admiral butterfly also doing the same, and, nearby, a Mourning Cloak butterfly:

Mourning cloak butterly

Why do butterflies mud-puddle? Well, it’s an easy way to absorb minerals, sodium in particular, from the solution it makes in water-logged soil. For this reason, other insects also congregate around mud puddles. Just watch and see who shows up.

  • Male butterflies tend to mud-puddle more than females. Read more.
  • If pollinators had dating profiles… This is a cute and clever article by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I learned a few species.
  • How can you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth? The butterfly’s antennae look like little golf clubs. If they don’t have a terminal bulb, but are more like a whisker (or even have whiskers themselves!), it’s a moth.
  • Want to identify other butterflies you’ve seen? Try this handy key!

Why should you care about bees?

Bees that pollinate: oh, all of them. But those we notice most are honeybees and bumblebees. There are also many solitary types such as leaf-cutter bees and Mason, or orchard, bees. (There are even bee mimics called hoverflies who do the same kind of job, without having a hive to go back to.) Honeybees and bumblebees pollinate cultivated crops; native bees pollinate native plants. To learn more, check out the videos on the Pollinator Partnership website, put together by Burt’s Bees, Wild for Bees, and Isabella Rosselini.

Even more fascinating is CBC Ideas radio/podcast "Dancing in the Dark." If you want to learn a lot about bees' variety, language, complexity and sheer sophistication in a short time, listen to this!

It’s very important to give honeybees as much habitat (well, hives) and food (fields of crops!) as we possibly can, because of Colony Collapse Disorder. When I first heard about this mystery illness (mites and viruses are involved)—and I’m a biologist by training—I knew the basic tool we had of doing something was throw numbers at it. Sometimes, an illness or an epidemic can only be overcome by developing a natural population resistance. One requires large populations where many are lost but some survive. Natural resistance is where survivors (survivor queens and surviving males that serve them) go on to create new hives, so that the next generation’s immunity increases and fewer are lost. Natural resistance would improve the survival rates of beehives until scientists came up with good answers.

So it was with a good deal of gratitude that we saw a huge uptake in people’s interest beekeeping, because only if more of us do it, will there be more of them, for evolutionary forces to have the fastest rate of success. There is no human intervention or cure for it yet.

Urban beekeeping is also getting to be more common. In 2011, UQAM allowed hiveson its roof (a Google translation of that link can be read here), and a few years ago, another apiary installed some hives downtown. The Ville is not planning on regulating the practice, so count on seeing more of this, everywhere.

Those of us who can’t keep bees can still help by buying honey from local beekeepers. Look for this kind of honey at the grocery store, farmer’s markets, and word-of-mouth. 

Nonetheless, there’s a reason I’m not keeping bees myself: honey bees are very competitive with native pollinator species. If we’re going to increase the number of kept hives, we also need to make sure that the native bees and other insect pollinators get as much food as possible — specifically native flowering plants, which honey bees are less adept at pollinating. And also: and sources of habitat (e.g. gardens with long grass, bare dirt, trees, and insect hotels). So while other people keep honeybees and grow fruits, flowers, and vegetables that need their pollination, I’m keeping a garden for everything else.

Let’s build a Mason bee house:

A few years ago, I created a Mason bee house out of a log and bit of hardware. I got the idea because of an interesting rant on the Montana Wildlife Gardener blog against honey bees (it’s interesting — here’s a link to all of Montana Gardener’s posts on the topic of bees.) A friend’s comment also spurred me to do it.

Here’s the process, in pictures:

The house typically needs a “roof,” but I skipped over that part.

The Mason bee house was quickly occupied. I’ve also seen it being used as a source of fibre for paper wasps, gathering material for their hives. They chew up the wood and build paper for nesting cells. They’re again succeeding in occupying the upper corner of my garage door. Wasps have a place in our ecosystem, too – so I’ll leave them alone.

Want to help another pollinator?

Bumblebees are important pollinators of native and fruiting crops. In fact, for some crops, the flowers need the particular buzz of the bumblebee to shake the pollen loose – they aren’t going to give it up for just any old insect! But there’s one bumblebee that’s landed on the Critically Endangered list, and it could use your help.

For no-mow May, I posted Replace your grass lawn with a meadow, or just let one happen. In it, there’s a section all about the now-endangered Rusty patched bumble bees, and how homeowners and gardeners can create habitat for them.

For example, leaving your yard an attended-to kind of messy will help. Let stands of grass grow tall, and leave nooks and crannies of bare soil. These are places where ground-dwelling bees can live.

Be a bumblebee scout for science:

The Xerces Society has a few programs for supporting bumblebee science and conservation. You can read about the threats they’re facing, but more importantly, you can help by reporting every bumblebee you see to:

Knowing the lifecycles, ranges, and habitats of the animals and insects you want to protect is critical if you’re going to be effective at preserving their populations. So another thing you can do, if you have suitable habitat or enjoy going for walks in nature, is participate in this study out of York University:

The study’s investigators say we currently don’t know exactly what constitutes high quality bumble bee habitat—especially when it comes to nesting. But they can give you tips on what to look for, and knowing what it looks like afield, you can report back at

There’s even information on The Missing Link about training your dog to help sniff out bumblebee nests, which will augment their discovery when you take your dog further afield. That’s a novel approach! If you or your dog are the type to take on this kind of challenge, do it do it do it!